Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi
Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace
- ISBN: 9781786077714
- Published By: Oneworld Publications
- Published: August 2020
In Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace, Sophia Rose Arjana explores the dynamics that have led to the surge in popularity of mandalas, yoga, images of the Buddha, and other tokens of what she calls “modern mystic-spirituality.” Arjana defines this term as “the search for meaning outside institutionalized religion in modernity . . . through the use of religious practices and traditions sources from numerous places, especially the Orient/East” (14), and traces how Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam have been commodified, muddled, whitewashed, and colonized by Euro-Americans in this search for meaning. The book thus aims to contribute to the legacy of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978) insofar as it traces the ways the East is fantasized as exotic, timeless, and spiritual by an economically dominant West. In the process, entrepreneurs in the spiritual marketplace profit from yoga retreats in Bali, Buddha sex toys, and Rumi-branded tote bags, and the voices of Asian practitioners of these religions are drowned out.
As she critiques the often-bizarre excesses of the mystical marketplace, Arjana grapples with several questions. Where did this valuation of mysticism and spirituality come from? Does modern mysticism fill a genuine need for enchantment amidst the difficulties of modern capitalism? Or do the racialized and profit-driven dynamics of modern mysticism obscure what is good in the traditions that it takes from?
She addresses these questions through a series of chapters that give the reader an overview of the modern mystical marketplace, and examines how orientalism, cultural colonialism, and capitalist profit-seeking distort the traditions that they draw from. The chapters range widely, and address topics such as festivals like Burning Man, the marketing of Buddhism and Hinduism, the rebranding of Rumi as a de-Islamicized poet of love, and Orientalist tropes in Lost and Star Wars.
The book succeeds in the important task of showing how Orientalism is alive and well, repackaged in categories like mysticism and spirituality. Arjana unpacks the way mysticism as a category is invented by Western scholars (27–37), and how it became attached to the nebulous term “spirituality.” She notes that spirituality, and implicitly mysticism, “is nothing and everything, subject to no analytical process, and therefore, able to be assumed by anyone, including the modern mystical seeker” (44). This quality of being undefinable “makes it a particularly good product to exploit for profit” (43).
However, the book also has some serious flaws. First, the book outlines a strong moral critique of modern mysticism for commodifying Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but it is not entirely clear where Arjana draws the line between “bad” commodification and “good” commodification. In the book, she admits that “the commodification of religion is not new” (127). So, what makes modern mysticism more problematic? At various points, the author suggests that relevant factors include whether credit is given to the tradition (72), whether a person identifies with the tradition (72), whether someone is profiting (85), or whether it “create[s] healthy communities” (85). However, the book lacks sustained discussion of what exactly makes certain acts of commodification problematic, and instead relies on vague declarations such as “a line is often crossed” (84) and “there is a profound difference between making money and creating good in the world” (85) without spelling out what that line or difference is. As someone who is sympathetic to Arjana’s claims and was initially attracted to this book in hopes of finding a model for thinking through these issues, I was disappointed by the lack of sustained engagement with this question.
A second problem is that the book, in its attempt to critique modern mysticism, inadvertently essentializes the religious traditions it discusses. On too many occasions to count, Arjana contrasts modern mysticism with “the real thing” (81), how these religions are “at their core” (139), or “in reality” (174). This implies that these complex and internally diverse traditions are timeless things out in the world, and that modern mysticism is to be judged on how well it rearticulates this already-existing thing. Following this model, Arjana describes modern mysticism as “muddled” (69), “misappropriations” (161), “incorrect” (160), a “grossly mutated version” of these traditions (181), a “problematic reduction” (245), as having “misunderstood” these traditions (173), or adopted them in a “sloppy” way (189). Arjana does not address the question of whether the transformations we are witnessing in modernity are categorically different from the longstanding history of change in religious traditions.
Finally, Arjana’s criticism of the modern mysticism as muddled is undermined by the many questionable characterizations she makes about the traditions she discusses. For instance, Arjana, who writes that “concepts like mysticism and spirituality are, in a sense, meaningless” (80) and describes how they are products of the western imagination (27–37), turns around and uses those same terms herself. To give one example among many, she writes about “the importance of tantric texts in Tibet, which are mystical” (186), without explanation. What is the meaning of the term mystical here, given that it had previously been declared meaningless?
Elsewhere, one finds a pattern of what Arjuna herself might characterize as sloppy mischaracterizations. For instance, one chapter describes Luke Skywalker as “a lone monk, a siddhu,” (246) an invented word that conflates the terms siddha (accomplished one) and sādhu (holy man). In another instance when writing about tantra, she contrasts “Hinduism (where tantric sex is located) and Buddhism (focused more on celibacy, at least in more traditional readings of the practice)” (198). This reflects a curious lack of understanding of the important role sexual metaphors, imagery, and sexual union (visualized or otherwise) play in Buddhism, particularly in Tibet. Lastly, in contrasting modern misappropriations of Buddhism with what “the Buddha teaches his followers” (243), she quotes someone claiming that the highest hope in Buddhism “is for the absolute repose of our being, nothingness” (243). This would come as a surprise to generations of Buddhist teachers, who have repeatedly and strenuously denied accusations of teaching “nothingness.” When I followed the footnote to see who would have made such a claim, it led me to a book by Rick Fields, a leader in the Shambala school (which comes under heavy criticism from Arjana) who does not appear to read any Asian languages. This and other similar examples make me hesitant to fully recommend it, in spite of the fact that it addresses important questions that deserve more attention from scholars of religion.
Kate Hartmann is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Wyoming.Kate HartmannDate Of Review:August 9, 2021